The air battle for England: the truth behind the failure of the Luftwaffe's counter-air campaign in 1941.

Author:Dildy, Douglas C.


The "Battle of Britain" is frequently referred to as history's first strategic air campaign--and a failure at that. The most oft quoted reason for its failure is that the Luftwaffe's leadership lacked any real interest in strategic air power and failed to invest in a large, four-engine heavy bomber in the years preceding World War Two (WWII). Additional reasons are sometimes cited, but it most commonly comes down to this brief, succinct, simplistic, "sound bite" conclusion that, in the larger perspective of air campaigning, lacks a fundamental understanding of air power, its necessary synchronous elements, and the ability to employ them simultaneously and synergistically.

The Luftwaffe: The Doctrine of Offensive Air Power

When Hitler officially unveiled the Luftwaffe on February 26, 1935, it came complete with an air power doctrine that had been formulated almost ten years earlier, in the secrecy of the Reichswehr's Truppenamt Luftschutzreferat ("Troop Bureau, Air Defense Desk"). Entitled Richtlinien fiir die Fuhrungs des operative Luftkrieges ("Directives for the Conduct of the Operational Air War") and published in May 1926, this document became the guidance for organization, targeting strategy, and operational parameters for the nascent Luftwaffe and its wartime roles. Two primary missions were envisioned: those flown by a "tactical air force" oriented towards supporting the army and navy and those conducted by a "strategic air force" organized for the destruction of targets in the enemy homeland.

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Wilberg and his three-man "air staff', the "Directives" postulated that the "strategic air force" might have a decisive effect in demoralizing the enemy population (a notion popularized by Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet) and by damaging the enemy's armaments industries, electricity generating systems, transportation networks, and port facilities. The "strategic bomber divisions" would be equipped with long- range heavy bombers--able to reach the USSR's Ural Mountains, or the UK's northern Scottish Coast (read "Scapa Flow") from bases within Germany--strategic reconnaissance aircraft, and long-range, heavily armed, two-seat escort fighters to enable the bomber formations to penetrate enemy air defences. Because of their inherent range capability, these units were seen as the only force capable of attacking the enemy homeland from the very outset of hostilities, yet they could also support a ground or maritime offensive by bombing enemy transportation nets, seaports and naval bases.1

In 1934 Wilberg, now a major general, was appointed by the Luftwaffe chief of staff (COS), Generalleutnant Walter Wever, to codify the service's operational air doctrine, which was published the following year as Luftwaffe Dienstvorschrift 16: Luftkriegfuhrung ("Luftwaffe Service Regulation 16: Air War Guidance", or LDv 16). The eight- year evolution of the Luftwaffe's offensive doctrine had eschewed its earlier Douhetian notions saying, "Attacks against cities made for the purpose of inducing terror in the civilian populace are to be avoided on principle." Instead, the published guidance identified the primary mission of the Luftwaffe as "the attack on the sources of enemy power." These included armaments industries, food production, import facilities, power stations, railway networks, military installations, and government administrative centers. (2)

During this secret, formative period, the development of German military aviation closely paralleled the Luftwaffe's doctrinal guidance. The same year the Luftwaffe was revealed and LDv 16 was published, the embryotic air arm had six squadrons of awkward and inadequate Domier Do 11/23 twin-engine bombers and seven equipped with Junkers Ju 52/3m trimotor bomber/transports, all soon to be replaced with two modem, twin-engine bomber designs. (3)

Additionally, the next year two prototype four-engine, long-range, heavy bombers, the Do 19 and Ju 89, (4) were received for testing. Intended to carry 1,600kg (3,5271b) of bombs for 2,000km (1,243 miles), the so-called "Ural Bombers" proved to be chronically underpowered and could not achieve their required performance specifications. (5) Wever was disappointed in both designs and, even before their first flights--just prior to his death in a crash in June 1936--he ordered a new study called "Bomber A". This project eventually resulted in the problem-plagued Heinkel He 177 heavy bomber. It was planned to be operational by mid-1942, with a force of 500 bombers (of 703 ordered) available by April 1 the following year. (6)

In February 1937, the first squadrons of the new, purpose-designed, twin-engine He 11 IB medium bomber and the Do 17E twin-engine mailplane-cum-light bomber joined the Luftwaffe's bomber force. While the latter, carrying only 500kg (1,1021b) of bombs, was to be used almost exclusively for relatively short-ranged airfield attacks and battlefield interdiction, the Heinkel, with three-times the bombload, was intended for much deeper interdiction (rail ways, seaports, other logistics choke points) and strategic bombardment with a bombload almost identical to the "Ural Bomber's". (7)

With the arrival of the 661-mile (1,065km) range He 111, on April 29, 1937 Generalleutnant Albert Kesselring (Wever's replacement) decided that Germany could not afford to spend twice the resources--twice as many engines, double the fuel consumption, and 2.5 times the aluminum --for roughly the same bombload, so he accepted the shorter range medium bomber, which he concluded could perform both strategic and tactical bombing, to a maximum of 500km (300 miles) beyond Germany's borders or the battlefront. (8)

Kesselring had the full agreement of Generaloberst Hermann Goring, the corpulent, vainglorious leader of the Luftwaffe. Although a Fokker D.VII fighter pilot and ace during WWI, Goring came into his own as a Nazi politician and, once Hitler came to power, he oversaw the development and expansion of the Luftwaffe as a basis for his power and influence. Prior to Hitler beginning WWII, he only exerted his command authority over personnel moves and aircraft production. Goring was no air power expert: he had not flown an aircraft since 1922, had no knowledge of, or experience in, air campaigning, and left doctrine, technological development and combat operations to the professionals, at least until the wartime employment of "his air force" put his prestige at risk. Regarding four-engine bombers, he is quoted to have said, "Der Fuhrer will never ask me how big our bombers are, but how many we have." (9)

Whether their bombers were powered by four engines or two, Luftwaffe leadership accepted as fundamental the need for fighter escort to get the bombers to their targets. This requirement resulted in the long-range Messerschmitt Bf 110 Kampfzerstbrer ("battle destroyer") "heavy fighter", which first flew on May 12, 1936. A slim, fast, twin-engine two-seater, the Zerstorer mounted a nose battery of two 20mm cannon and four 7.92mm machine guns, and was intended to range ahead of the bombers and sweep away enemy interceptors before them, as well as provide close escort for the He Ills and Do 17s. What was not appreciated was that the "destroyer's" adversaries, being primarily small, light interceptors, would have a decisive maneuvering advantage once combat was joined. (10)


The Zerstorer's likely adversaries were not unlike the Luftwaffe's own defensive "light fighter", the Messerschmitt Bf 109, first flown May 28, 1935. A sleek, fast, single-seater, the Bf 109 was designed as a quick-climbing bomber interceptor, mounting three (later four) 7.92mm MG 17 machine guns. Sacrificing, to a degree, some of the maneuverability traditional to fighters, the Bf 1092s high performance meant that it could attack swiftly and disengage easily, at its pilot's discretion, obviating the need to out-maneuver an opponent in a dogfight. Planned as a frontal defensive fighter--assuming the mantle of the Fokker D.VII during the last year of WWI--and point defense interceptor, doctrinally it was intended to provide air superiority ("Luftuberlegenheit") over the frontlines, to a depth of approximately 50km (30 miles) beyond, as well as defending vital industrial and political centers within Germany (11). Consequently, the thought of extending the type's limited range/endurance through the use of jettisonable external fuel tanks never occurred to the Luftwaffe's leadership ... until it was too late.

The doctrinal requirement for fighter escorts was so well accepted that the Luftwaffe's initial procurement and force structure plans intended for half of the Jagdwaffe ("fighter force") to be "heavy fighters". (12) However, the Bf 110's development lagged while the Bf 109 was improved quickly through four iterations, resulting in the superb Bf 109E "Emil" and, when Hitler began WWII by invading Poland, seven of ten Zerstorergruppen ("destroyer groups") in the Luftwaffe's order of battle were actually equipped with the Bf 109D as interim equipment. (13)

The Luftwaffe's first deliberate planning for a bombing campaign against Great Britain was undertaken in Au gust-September 1938. As Hitler made the first bellicose moves to subjugate Czechoslovakia, Goring feared a strong British reaction--by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command--and directed General der Flieger Hellmuth


Felmy, commander of what would soon become Luftflotte ("Air Fleet") 2, to provide an assessment of his command's counter-offensive potential.


Felmys "plan study" determined: "A war of annihilation against England appears to be out of the question with the resources thus far available," (14) because most industrial targets lay beyond the range of his medium bombers, the meager size of his bomber force was limited by the lack of modern airfields, and there were no escort...

To continue reading